February 12, 2015 / 6:14 PM / 3 years ago

SFO wins corporate foreign bribery conviction-and one legal bill

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has secured a key corporate conviction for foreign bribery after a London court sentenced the chairman and marketing director of a UK printing company for bribing public officials in Kenya and Mauritania.

Judge David Higgins on Thursday sentenced Christopher Smith, the 72-year-old chairman of Smith and Ouzman, to an 18-month suspended sentence and sales and marketing director Nicholas Smith, 43, was handed a three-year jail sentence.

The company, which specialises in security documents such as ballot papers and education certificates, will be sentenced later in a case dubbed “Chickengate”, because the word “chicken” was used as a guise for “bribes” in email exchanges.

Calling the behaviour “cynical, deplorable and deeply antisocial”, the judge also disqualified the men as directors for six years after they were convicted of bribing public officials around 400,000 pounds to secure business contracts between 2006 and 2010.

“This case marks the first convictions secured against a corporate for foreign bribery, following a contested trial,” said SFO Director David Green. “The convictions recognise the corrosive impact of such conduct on growth and the integrity of business contracts in the developing world.”

News of the sentencing came shortly after the SFO was ordered to pay a multi-million pound (dollar) legal bill following the collapse last year of a coal mining fraud case against six people -- including an eminent lawyer.

The SFO, whose case was dismissed by a judge for technical reasons after prosecutors changed the way they presented their case during trial, said it would consider appealing.

“The SFO is considering possible avenues of appeal in relation to the judgement of (Judge Gary) Hickinbottom on the issue of costs in this case,” a spokeswoman said on Thursday.

The judge’s decision to award costs against the SFO is a blow to the agency, which has announced a series of high-profile investigations and is determined to silence political critics who wish to roll it into a national crime-fighting agency.

It had charged the six men with conspiracy to defraud local authorities in a 2013 case that hinged on the transfer of the leases of four Welsh opencast mining sites operated by miner Celtic Energy to British Virgin Islands-based companies in 2010.

The SFO has also been ordered to pay the legal costs of the London-based Tchenguiz property barons after a botched investigation prompted the brothers to launch a 300 million pound damages claim. The agency reached a 4.5 million pound out-of-court settlement last July.

Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; editing by Susan Thomas

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